Under Chávez: Media Harassed with Online Hacking, Phone Tapping and Censorship
“If not for the media, I would have 80% popularity.” – Hugo Chávez
On Friday, December 2nd while Caracas was decked out to host thirty two heads of state for the Community of Latin American and Caribbean States‘ (CELAC) inaugural summit, several media outlets, universities, and organizations with critical views of the Venezuelan government claimed to have had their email and social media accounts hacked.
The fact that Caracas has been the headquarters for the creation of a new democratic forum that could improve dialogue and consensus in Latin America can give the impression that life in Venezuela operates within the boundaries of a democratic country where, despite any ups and downs of conflict, human rights retain a special place.
- President Hugo Chávez Frías
- Nov. 1992: Attempted to overthrow the government of Carlos Andrés Peréz
- Feb. 1999: Takes office after winning 1998 election
- July 2000: Re-elected under new constitution for a six-year term
- Apr. 2002: Abortive coup. Chavez returns to power after two days.
- Aug. 2004: Wins recall referendum on whether he should serve out rest of his term
- Dec. 2006: Wins another six-year term with 63% of the vote
- Dec. 2007: Loses constitutional referendum which included proposal to allow the president to run indefinitely for office
- Feb. 2009: Wins referendum that lifts term limits on elected officials
- Sep. 2010: Chavez party wins majority in National Assembly elections but opposition gets some 40% of seats
- Hacked: Prominent Figures
- - Comedian Laureano Márquez
- - Rector of Central University of Venezuela Cecilia García Arocha
- - Poet, writer, and television producer Leonardo Padrón
- - Political activist and student representative David Smolansky
- - Director of the School of Economics of UCV José Guerra
- - Host of the popular show Radar de los Barrios Jesús Torrealba
- - Leftist politician Douglas Bravo
- - Journalist Milagros Socorro
- - Journalist Sebastiana Barráez
- - Social fighter Luis Trincado
- - Director of polling company Luis Vicente León
However, that was not the impression that presented itself the day the hacking victims stepped forward. The list of victims included people that play important political and institutional roles, artists, journalists, and well-known citizens like the famed comedian Laureano Márquez. They declared themselves victims of the “computer terrorism policy enforced by the government of Hugo Chávez Frías.”
Besides Márquez, those “hacked” were the rector of the Central University of Venezuela (UCV), Cecilia García Arocha; the poet, writer, and television producer Leonardo Padrón; the political activist and student representative David Smolansky; the director of the School of Economics of UCV, José Guerra; the host of the popular show Radar de los Barrios, Jesús Torrealba; and the ex-guerilla fighter and leftist politician Douglas Bravo, who reported that the Venezuelan government “not only disrespected freedom of expression, but sought to intimidate us and a move us away from public debate.” The full list is much more extensive and includes journalists like Milagros Socorro and Sebastiana Barráez; social fighters like Luis Trincado; directors of polling companies like Luis Vicente León; and others.
Some of them, after concerted effort, recovered control of their accounts. Others remained powerless as their names and accounts were used to attack and insult dissidents, political leaders, and anyone that identified with the opposition.
To form an accurate assessment of the reality of Venezuela—whether the arena be political, social, or economic—is a truly complex and laborious task. With certainty, there is no other country in Latin America where such a high contrast exists between the two poles that divide Venezuelan society. We can choose any subject at random and the perceptions will always be mutually exclusive: On one side is the vision that the independent media shows; on the other is the enormous propaganda apparatus, installed by Chávez with a multi-million dollar investment.
For example: Is the state oil company PDVSA in a situation of debt and operational debacle or has it become a revolutionary model of administration and efficiency? Has poverty been reduced to minimal levels like the official propaganda insists, or are the rates stagnant despite the fact that the government has used Venezuela’s revenue from international oil sales for proselytism purposes? Do Venezuelans enjoy the highest level of freedom of expression in their history, like the Revolutionary government claims, or is it a reduced, beaten right, under permanent siege since Hugo Chávez installed himself in power in 1999? The latter is a debate that remains, despite the fact that during Chávez’s term there have been more than a thousand documented assaults against freedom of expression. The list of assaults includes a range of all possible affectations against the media and journalists, from verbal abuse to the closure of television and radio stations.
The crucial theme of freedom of expression is constantly at the center of the debate, which involves, of course, competing sectors, but also Latin American social movements, national and international NGOs, and the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights and United Nations Commission on Human Rights, who frequently issue reports on conditions in the country. Despite forceful evidence about the situation of freedom of expression in Venezuela, there is no way to conciliate positions between the parties involved.
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